Interview with Peter Jaroš

Peter Jaroš (1940) belongs to a strong generation of prose writers who, in the mid-1960s, managed to modernize Slovak literature and gradually make it an equivalent part of European literature. As early as in his first works – Afternoon on the Terrace (Popoludnie na terase), Make Me a Sea (Urob mi more), Consternation (Zdesenie), Scales (Váhy), and Journey to Immobility (Putovanie k nehybnosti) – Jaroš increased in value the experience of existentialism, absurd drama and Nouveau Roman, combining the elements of distinctive tale-telling with elements of nonsense and absurdity. His works from the 1960s became grotesque allegories of the political situation of that time. He did not give up his grotesque view of reality even in his books from the 1970s: Gory Stories (Krvaviny), The Thrice Smiling Darling (Trojúsmevný miláčik), Skein (Pradeno), The Body in the Herbarium (Telo v herbári), rather, he added elements of humor and imaginativeness similar to the imaginativeness of Slovak folk tales to it. He appreciated his previous creative experiences to the fullest and deepened the historical dimension of our national existence in the novel The Millenial Bee (Tisícročná včela) published in 1979 – that is nearly thirty years ago - which belongs to the best of modern Slovak literature.

Before I ask Peter about the birth of the Millenial Bee (I asked him for the first time as a journalist shortly after its release), I would like to ask him about his creative beginnings.


ANTON BALÁŽ: Your first book was published in 1963, at the time when realism ruled Slovak literature, often in its socialist-realist form. Despite that, your generation (Johanides, Sloboda, Šikula) managed to, figuratively speaking, open the windows to modern literary Europe. How did this go along? Which authors from the west and which of their works played a crucial part in this process?

PETER JAROŠ: The determining factor for me as well as several of my classmates was higher education. There were important figures of Slovak literature, linguistics, literary criticism and literary science working at the Philosophical Faculty. At that time they were professors Milan Pišút, Šimon Ondruš, Eugen Pauliny, Rudolf Krajčovič, Ján Stanislav, Andrej Mráz, Paľo Bunčák, Milan Rúfus and, of course, Ján Števček who was also the oponent of my dissertation paper on Surrealism. In my class there were Jano Šimonovič, Ondrej Nagaj, Marián Bednár and Dušan Kužel. I was roommates with Rudo Sloboda. He slept on the lower bunk – I was on the top one – until he stopped out. Milan Šútovec, Dezider Banga, Milan Leščák, Pavel Vilikovský, Vlastimil Kovalčík and Jozef Gerbóc were in the class after us. These classes were full of talented students, future poets or prose writers who, along with other younger and older ones (the entire namelist would be too long), represent the main stream of Slovak literature of the second half of the 20th century. As early as freshman year we put together, along with Rudo Sloboda and Ján Šimonovič, a kind of literary collection titled The Truncated Cone (Zrezaný ihlan). Back then we were in love with our surrealists, Czech Poetism,  French surrealists and existentialism. The collection included our poems, aphorisms, decalcomania drawings and pointillisms – they were various, mostly abstract pictures. Upon Rudo Sloboda’s leaving the Faculty we split the collection in three, and chosen by lot, I got to have the first part which I treasure till today. At the end of sophomore year we started publishing the Tribúna mladých magazine. The editor-in-chief was Jožo Gerbóc. It did not come out regularly. I remember publishing a short story in it titled „Christ is Looking for Tenants“ (Kristus hľadá nájomníkov). It is not published anywhere else but there.

Milan Rúfus spent a lot of time with us in seminars. Once he took us to Prague where we met with Laco Novomeský who was working at the Museum of Czech Literature after his release from prison. It was an unforgettable experience.

What I appreciate the most is that back then we had the opportunity to get familiar also with literature that was less accessible. That was how we, as students, got to existentialism or Freud. Professors gave us notes of recommendation for the University Library and thus we had access to otherwise inaccessible literature. We attended seminars of Jaroslav Martinka, a philosopher, who talked about the works of J.P. Sartre, A. Camus, Heidegger and Jaspers in class or in student cafes. We used to borrow Polish magazines which featured articles on existentialism and European as well as world literary movements. That is how I got to Sartre’s The Flies, Camus‘ The Stranger as well as to Freud’s Case Histories and other books. To us, Professor Martinka was such an enlightened personality, a person with whom my generation of writers spent hours in discussion. He would inspire us even with analysis and interpretation of antique Greek philosophy. Parmenides was his darling at that time...

Work at the Faculty started turning into collaboration with Mladá tvorba. In time, all of us had written for it. The first work I published in it was a poem, „A Ball of Thread“ (Klbko nití). Later on some short stories and reports followed. Mladá tvorba was a kind of creative oasis for us, a beautiful and stimulating workroom. We were young and eager to know and embrace everything. On one hand we were striving for originality, on the other we wanted to try all the avant-garde trends and movements which we accomplished sometimes more, sometimes less. It was a manifold start-up and a great training. We wrote automatic texts, drew pointillist pictures and decalcomania, we were enchanted by existentialism and loved Surrealism... I cannot deny that those were great times of our student lives which continued on after college until the end of 1969 when drastic normalization took over...  A young author, over the years, usually finds a way of writing, his own path... I still do think, though, that writing well means writing clearly, concisely (if possible) and also comperehensibly...

ANTON BALÁŽ: The principles of the French Nouveau Roman are already strongly present in your third book, Consternation. Scales, published shortly after, features elements of surrealist dream techniques and it was even dubbed a „semi-detective horror“ by critics at that time. When we recall that literature then was under the control of preliminary censorship, the so-called press supervision, a dose of courage to write as well as to publish such books was required on the part of the author as well as the publisher. What are your recollections of the literary climate in the early and mid-60s in terms of this?

PETER JAROŠ: Here the 1960s  were very favorable towards original as well as translated literature. We, the young and younger writers, were getting familiar with the authors of the Nouveau Roman (Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet) with great interest. Several starting and young writers tried this style of writing, me included. It was enticing and new because the so-called New Novel attempted, based on the thesis of primary, unmarked existence of reality, especially the material one, to capture it by a detailed and precise description of its exterior, visible and perceivable form. At the same time the New Novel refused the Balzacesque literary character and story, as was sharply formulated by Alain Robbe-Grillet, a representative of one of the lines of the New Novel. It was also a kind of programmed attempt for „pure“, politically uncommitted works which – after the rigid and one-sided 1950s – was convenient for us  because of its artistic freedom and also because young authors wanted to differ significantly from the works of the previous decade. At the same time we wanted to prove that Slovak was just as suitable for literary experiments as was French, for instance. After some time, several of us – not just me – abandoned this style of writing (eye-camera). It enriched me, though, with a new professional knowledge and partly marked my future work, especially scriptwriting... Along with the New Novel, existentialism arrived once again in the 1960s, though more intensely. We eagerly read and studied Heidegger and Jaspers (analyses of man’s sojourn in the world; analysis of the so-called orientation in the world; existence is a freedom which does not lie in knowing as much as in experience; metaphysics hides the unexplainable in the ciphers of transcendence; true existence can be touched in experiences, in getting through border situations, etc.). We also read and studied Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, who briefly visited Slovakia at that time... I, personally, liked his examination of the contrast between freedom and necessity, or search for the solution for „man sentenced to freedom“ in his engagement, so that he could become „his own free project“. The philosophy of existentialism substantially influenced me for a certain time and I gladly and often go back to its creators till today.

ANTON BALÁŽ: I will take my next question from the end – by noting that three of your great fellow-writers from the 1960s and later: Ján Johanides, Rudolf Sloboda and Vincent Šikula are no longer with us. Surely, sometimes you, too, reminisce about the stories and experiences that brought you together while some surely set you apart, when looking for ways of further development of Slovak literature. How was it?

PETER JAROŠ: It is diffcult for a person to judge himself, or his colleagues objectively because he can easily stray from the truth to visions. That is why you should consider what I will say from this view. There were never any serious conflicts between us, perhaps that is the reason! My generation mates, I will name just a few, for instance Johanides, Sloboda, Šikula, Ballek, Rakús, Zelinka, Kužel, Vilikovský, Šútovec, Kadlečík – they all were, or are, distinctive personalities with their own opinion and creative program. We never stood in each other’s way, rather, we drew inspiration from one another... I will try to roughly and in general say what we wanted to achieve...

As far as I know, Plato, Husserl, Pascal and Leibniz considered mathematics to be the model of true knowledge and it was mathematics that led them to philosophy. Some say: write stories, you’ll be a philosopher. We, story-tellers, often have the feeling (I am talking mainly about myself) that in order to be able to live in this world, in a family, in a particular society, we have to almost ironically comment on the life around us because life not just pushes us towards irony but completely raises us in it. I think that literature can deliver this feeling quite accurately. I am not sure to what extent mathematics can do that. Unamuno wrote that though mathematics is the only perfect science because of addition, substraction, multiplication and division of numbers, it does not do so with things real and tangible - thus it is perfect only when it remains utterly formal. Formal logic is of no use beyond this point, at least not as the only reliable way of cognition. Knowledge should bring solace but that, which can be proven to be true by reason, does not provide it...

However, good literature does provide solace. It has an entire repertoire of means to give a closer look at the mysterious and imconprehensible in human life, how to talk about fate, predestination and fear of the future. It uses imagination, farce and parody to do so. It uses fabrication and often exaggerates. It dreams. Without inhibition caused by the reality or irreality of dreaming, it transfers us to the reality or irreality of literary text. It experiments. It speaks in apocrypha, allegory and parables so that it can grasp at least some kind of truth about man... I, as well as my fellow-writers, work with all this when writing. Each of us in our own unique way, of course. I will dare to express a generalization, and it may not apply totally, that we were a kind of poetic sensualists because, when writing, we activated mostly our sensory potential which was a reaction to extreme hypostatization and draining of sensory wealth in perceiving reality...

ANTON BALÁŽ: The Millenial Bee holds an important position among Slovak novels. Very productively and progressively, you gave it a magical, fairy-tail and mythical dimension of our national existence with a strong erotic story line, disrupting the tradition of literary prudery then still present in Slovak literature since the national revival. Our first interview about it in the early 1980s was titled „The Millenial Bee Flew Out of Today“ (Tisícročná včela vyletela z dneška). Today we can add: at the same time it flew out into the world.  Not just due to Juraj Jakubisko’s Fellini-like adaptation but also thanks to numerous book translations. How do you view its journey around the world, the contacts and arguments with its translators – including Ghias Mousli’s Arabic translation?

PETER JAROŠ: Each foreign language translation brings joy to the author. Sometimes the consultations of the author and translator are difficult but also pleasing and of benefit. Mr. Ghias Mousli translated the Millenial Bee into Arabic, his translation was published in Egypt and Syria. We had met several times before that because he had to, with my approval, edit several „love scenes“ in the Arabic version.

ANTON BALÁŽ: I have to mention also the translations of numerous of your short stories and book selections into German, English, French, Spanish and all Central European and Balkan languagues. Since you are one of the most translated Slovak writers, what chances, do you think, Slovak literature has in infiltrating the awareness and publishing plans of „great“ literatures? 

PETER JAROŠ: Personal contacts are often important but besides that also the appearance at bookfairs. Indispensable, in the Slovak context, is our Center for Information on Literature which publishes the Slovak Literary Review, regularly informing on Slovak literature in world languages and its subpart SLOLIA which supports financially foreign editions of literary works by Slovak writers. It is apparent that this activity is not vain as there are more and more foreign language translations of Slovak books appearing every year.

ANTON BALÁŽ: Last year a unique translating project of the Visegrad group countries was realised –  the publishing of the Literary Anthology of V4 Countries which include the translations of three contemporary Slovak prose writers. This year, the Arabic-English edition of the anthology will also feature Ghias Mousli’s translation of your short story Flowers in a Vase (Kvety vo váze) from your book Hot Snows (Horúce (s)nehy). It will be presented at the Cairo international bookfair, in January 2009, and the organizers hope you will be present. Looking at his maps, Martin Pichanda, your geographer from the Millenial Bee, only dreamed about travelling the world. How was it and is now with you – the creator of his globe-trotter dreams?

PETER JAROŠ: I, too, like to see the world because getting to know other cultures is enriching and brings nations closer together. That is the purpose of culture...

                                                                             Translated by Saskia Hudecová